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Reading Photographs: Robert Adams' Sunday School

by Lindsay Mamchur, 17 August 2020
This entry will engage in a sample study of Robert Adams’ image Sunday School to suggest strategies for the critical reading of photographs. It will also examine the interrelationships between reading photographs, visual literacy, and critical thinking.
The photograph in question is featured in the gallery. To follow the sample reading, open this to view the image in a separate tab.

Analyzing, or reading, photographs is an essential practice in the study of photography. The method of reading discussed here is informed by the ideas of art historians and critical theoreticians such as W. J. T. Mitchell, Mieke Bal, Erwin Panofsky, and Roland Barthes.


In general, this method consists of two parts: description and analysis.


In describing the photograph, the reader identifies what they see. They make a visual inventory of the image that answers “who, what, where, and when?” Then, in the analysis, the reader inquires more deeply into the context of its making to interpret the photographer’s ideas about the image and other latent meanings.


This entry seeks to explore two questions:


i. What reading can be formed from the image Sunday School by photographer Robert Adams?

ii. What is the relationship between visual literacy, critical thinking and reading photographs?

i. What reading can be formed from the image Sunday School by photographer Robert Adams?




The first level of reading, description, is based on what is seen or given.


In this instance, the photograph’s title is revealing; the image depicts a class of Sunday school students seated outside of a church. In the foreground, the students face one person, presumably their teacher. The church stands in an arid, untreed landscape. In the distant background, the contour of a mountain ridge echoes the line of the church roof.


The quality of the image is not one made recently. It is a black and white print, which is less common now in the age of colour digital images. Other clues that point to when the photograph originated include the formal dress and hairstyles of the Sunday school class and the church's architectural character. In its low, horizontal massing and simplicity of material and ornamentation, the structure recalls vernacular modernism. In addition, it has an unweathered, recently-built quality. From these factors, a reader might date the photograph to in or around the mid-twentieth century.




Now that the photograph has been described, the reading process advances to analysis. In this part, the reader looks more deeply at what they see and studies the social, political, and environmental contexts from which the image arose. Understanding these conditions will help the reader conceive their interpretation of why the photograph was made and what the photographer might be trying to communicate.


Robert Adams is an American photographer. Sunday School is a photograph from his series The New West. The series documents the changing relationship between the built and natural environments in the American West during the 1960s and 70s. At this point in American history, cities were expanding out from urban centres. There are doubtless many factors that explain this movement of people. Among them could be that dense, increasingly industrialized urban areas became less desirable places to live.[i] The American West was wide-open, “empty” land waiting for development. The sprawl was particularly apparent in places like Colorado’s Front Range, which was transformed by suburban tract housing.[ii]


In Sunday School, Adams mapped what was in his time and place an emerging pattern of settlement.



The focus of this photograph is the Sunday school class and the church. The face of the building oriented towards the sun and the sharp shadow of the roof provide the most striking contrast in the composition. The structure immediately stands out amongst the landscape and sky that are varying tonal values. Further, the church is framed by the contour of the mountain range.


What is included in the frame of a photograph, and how it is included, is decided by the photographer. Adams framed this image around the church. He did not choose to include any other buildings that may have been nearby. In this way, the church appears isolated and somewhat out of place. In contrast, the landscape is a consistent and powerful presence.


In my reading, the punctum, or emotional tug, of this image is the Sunday school class. The group of figures is nested within the frame of the church. They appear in candid positions: some are reading, some are turned toward their peers in conversation, and some are gazing toward the photographer with curious expressions. Most are unaware of their participation in a scene set against a background that, intentionally or not, makes readers question the group’s place in the surrounding landscape. “What are they doing there?” is an initial question. “Why would they build a church in such an inhospitable-looking place?” Regardless of the answers to these questions, Adams has included the class in his image. He has given the people a place in his construction because they have all somehow found a way to be there together. This demonstrates the photographer’s acceptance of their presence and seeming ease within the landscape. This image is about the resilience of both people and land and a transformation between social and environmental conditions that continues to unfold today.

ii. What is the relationship between visual literacy, critical thinking, and reading photographs?


Visual literacy is competence in reading, interpreting, and creating visual images.[iii]


Critical thinking refers to a process of analyzing and evaluating information to form conclusions.[iv]


As mentioned before, reading photographs is a process that involves identifying and examining what one sees in an image, as well as studying its contextual background to form an interpretation.

These three ideas are interrelated. All arise from an analytical perspective or way of thinking, and all seek some form of meaning.


Reading photographs is an expression of visual literacy. In order to form an interpretation of an image, a reader must think and look critically. So then, reading photographs is also a creative form of critical thinking. It is a particularly relevant form today given the cultural dominance of visual images. An ability to read photographs, by extension, is to be an informed viewer of the world.


We, people of the twenty-first century, are surrounded by images. We see them, we make them, we are depicted in them and as photo historian Peter Turner argues “we believe we know what to expect [in them].”[v]


To read a photograph in the manner described is to share in the experience of someone in a past time or place and to realize there is a richness much unknown.


Thus there is great value in reading photographs: it is an exercise in critical thinking that fosters curiosity and thoughtfulness. Additionally, the process can be about extracting what compels and, through it, deriving meaning that is as individual as the reader themself.


This entry is adapted from my research poster of the same name, presented at the Undergraduate Research Award Poster Competition in September 2019.


Adams, Robert. Sunday School. A church in a new tract. Colorado Springs, Colorado. 1970. © Robert Adams

[i] Miguel Guitart Vilches, “Reshaping Robert Adams’ Landscape,” ZARCH: journal of interdisciplinary studies in architecture and urbanism, no. 2 (2014): 186 – 197.

[ii] “The New West,” Steidl, accessed 15 October 2019,

[iii] ‘What is Visual Literacy?” Visual Literacy Today, accessed 15 October 2019,

[iv] “Defining Critical Thinking,” The Foundation for Critical Thinking, accessed 15 October 2019,

[v] Peter Turner, “Photographs - Demands and Expectations,” in Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography by the Photographer’s Gallery (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 78.

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